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Jessica LaRusso, 5280's managing editor, and her husband Jordan carry their harvested tree from the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest. Courtesy of Jessica LaRusso

Where to Cut Your Own Christmas Tree in the Wild (Legally)

The U.S. Forest Service's tree-cutting program goes beyond spreading holiday cheer—it's a small (and important) way that you can assist with forest management.

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Living in Colorado comes with lots of holiday perks, including the chance to go dashing through the snow to find that perfect Christmas tree. As part of the U.S. Forest Service’s mission to get more people onto public lands, the annual tree-cutting program began in the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest in 1978, with more forests joining in over the years.

Along with providing a fun, outdoor activity to kick off the holiday season, this program helps to selectively clear undergrowth in areas planned for thinning to reduce the risk of fires. Additionally, local economies that border these lands stand to benefit from the annual visitors that come searching for the perfect holiday tree.

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“The Christmas tree-cutting program brings people to these smaller mountain communities, where they visit the local hardware stores, stop for gas, and eat at local restaurants,” says Reid Armstrong, public affairs officer for Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest. “It also meets our objective of getting forest products into the hands of people.”

Most of our state’s national forests now provide holiday tree-cutting permits, though guidelines, cost, and access vary between the different ranger districts. Permits must be purchased ahead of time and need to be attached to the trees that you take out. As part of their Every Kid in a Park initiative, all Colorado 4th graders can now pick up a free holiday tree permit at a U.S. Forest Service office. Maps to the different cutting areas are available where permits are sold, and most areas require that trees be under 6 inches in trunk diameter and cut 6 inches or less from the ground. Be sure to bring a handsaw (no chainsaws allowed) and your own rope or straps for getting the tree home.

If you’re looking to add a dash of adventure to your holiday tradition, head to these nearby national forest areas to chop down your own perfectly imperfect tree to help deck your halls this season:

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest

Where: Grand County, near Winter Park and Fraser
When: Through January 6
Get a Permit: Online at Open Forest, at the Sulphur Ranger District Office, through the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce, and several other retail locations
Cost: $20 each, with a limit of five trees per household
Tips: Most of the access roads in the cutting areas will not be plowed or will be closed to motor vehicles, so bring some snowshoes and come dressed for a winter hike in to find that perfect tree. 

Pike and San Isabel National Forest

Where: Areas in Woodland Park, Leadville, Salida, and Buffalo Creek
When: Through December 24*
Permits: Any Pike and San Isabel U.S. Forest Service Office
Cost: $20 each at Pikes Peak Ranger District, $10 at San Isabel Ranger Districts
Tips: Each of the ranger districts in this forest manage permits differently, so it’s best to check their websites prior to planning your adventure.
*Permit sale dates may vary by ranger district.

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White River National Forest

Where: Areas in Dillon, Aspen, Eagle, and Rifle
When: Through late December, depending on ranger district
Permits: White River Ranger Stations and these retail locations
Cost: $10 each, with a limit of up to five trees per person
Tips: Avoid cutting single trees in a forest opening and instead choose one standing in a group, which promotes better growth in the remaining trees.

Winter Adventures

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